Political dialogue can often feel like a negotiation — with each side trying to put forward why their view makes the most sense. However, way more often than not, there is no ‘final solution’ to these discussions. People aren’t like to fundamentally change in one conversation, and unless you are sat in Parliament or the Oval Office, the ideas being shared likely won’t have an immediate impact on the rest of society.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important!
It is these conversations that over time will shape the way we relate to different issues and — perhaps more importantly — each other. So doing them well should absolutely be something we strive for and something we practice.
By understanding and then implementing these 6 negotiation principles, you will be able to more effectively navigate the murky waters of political dialogue.
So, give them a read, give them a go, and feel free to share any related thoughts or experiences that come to mind in the comments section!
The ability to see the situation as the other side sees it, as difficult as it may be, is one of the most important skills a negotiator can possess.
— Roger Fisher, in ‘Getting To Yes’
If it were up to me, I would change only one word of this quote — ‘negotiator’ — and replace it with ‘person’. The importance of being able to see things from another person’s perspective cannot be overstated. And you definitely don’t need to be attempting to ‘get to yes’ to justify applying this skill.
In fact, without it, I don’t think you’ll really be able to ‘get’ anywhere…
In his book, Fisher explores the main techniques and principles you need to follow in order to partake in an effective negotiation. Quickly becoming a best seller and staple of business literature, the ideas mentioned within its pages can absolutely be applied in other contexts as well: namely, political discussions.
This article will go over 6 techniques described in the book that can help you have better conversations on social and political issues. These are:
1. Separate the people from the problem.
2. Focus on interests, not positions.
3. Learn to manage emotions.
4. Express appreciation.
5. Put a positive spin on your message.
6. Escape the cycle of action and reaction.
Well, without further ado, let’s jump right in!
Separate the people from the problem
Always remember that people are coming to every discussion, debate, or encounter with their own experiences, values, and beliefs. If you want to make any kind of headway, you need to speak to these directly. Particularly when a person is being very ‘hardline’ with their views, at this point you might want to step back and see where this perspective is coming from.
This can be very difficult, of course, as it involves empathizing with beliefs that you may find reprehensible. But if this is the case, it’s almost more important that you do so. If you can’t even understand where the other person is coming from, you will spend the entire conversation speaking past one another.
To practice this… Don’t view someone as the embodiment of the idea, view them as someone who’s life experiences have led them to their current beliefs.
Focus on interests, not positions
The aim here is better to understand what it is a person is really interested in, as opposed to viewing them simply as someone who is attacking your own position. Instead of seeing the person you are speaking to as an ‘opponent’, view them as someone who has different and perhaps even conflicting interests to you. From here, you can try any number of ways to find common ground or explore constructive disagreement.
This is a principle often practiced in the conflict resolution field; interest-based mediation is a technique that helps people navigate disputes by getting them to set aside their opposing ‘positions’ and find a mutually agreeable solution based on their respective ‘interests’. Now of course, rarely do political discussions take place in a setting where prolonged dialogues are possible. Nor are many of the issues being engaged with even possible to find a ‘solution’ to at all. However, looking at someone’s interests in each discussion can help you get over the oppositional nature of political discourse.
To practice this… Instead of seeing someone as an ‘opponent’, explore their interests as a way to overcome conflict and find a potential middle ground.
Learn to manage emotions
This is perhaps one of the hardest principles on the list, particularly when adapted for sociopolitical contexts. However, making sure every participant has the opportunity to express their emotions as well as have them recognized is essential if a productive conversation is going to take place. In Getting To Yes, Fisher writes about the “burden of unexpressed emotions.” If we feel pent up, then that will manifest itself in our behaviour one way or another. To overcome this burden, explain how you are feeling.
Even when people adamantly stick to ‘fact-based’ arguments, they will still have a world of emotion whirring around inside their heads. This is perfectly natural and universally experienced. So, even if something is ‘factual’, you can still relate to it on an emotional level. If you refuse to acknowledge this dynamic, then you will be increasing your own emotional strain, which could in turn get in the way of a great conversation.
To practice this… Be upfront and honest about how you are feeling, and ask others how they are doing in conversations as well.
This is actually a great technique for emotional regulation — both in others and yourself. By vocally giving appreciation to someone for a comment they made, e.g.:
“You know what, I never thought of it that way before…”
“I actually hadn’t heard of that example, thanks for bringing that up!”
This appreciation not only makes the other person feel heard and valued, but it also gives them permission to receive the information you are putting forward without thinking they are ‘conceding points’. Simple affirmations will go a long way in promoting better and less aggressive dialogue.
Put a positive spin on your message
This one could — admittedly — be the most difficult to achieve, as often the topics being discussed really just aren’t very positive. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find positive attributes to each person’s perspective on an issue. For instance, if someone is taking a particularly strong stance on being ‘anti-mask’, you could say:
“Look, it’s good that you are concered with infringments of our individual rights, and it is important we remain vigilant regarding these at all times, however…”
In this case, the ‘positive spin’ is acknowledging that it’s good for someone to be wary of when their rights are challenged. From there, you can go into why you might think the negatives in this case outweigh the positives.
To practice this… Even if you can’t find positives in the topic being discussed, recognize the positives in each other’s perspectives.
Escape the cycle of action and reaction
The benefits of this final technique should be clear. When we allow ourselves to get swept up in knee-jerk reactions, we can quickly lose our cool and escalate the situation. Understandably, many of the topics discussed in politics can elicit a deep and rapid emotional response. While feeling and acknowledging this is ok, don’t lash out. Instead, either a) talk about it as mentioned in point 3 (learn to manage emotions), or b) step back from it.
If the comment that made you angry was directed at a specific point or idea you presented, distance yourself from it. Engage with the idea as you would a physical object. Act as if it’s not you they are attacking, but the content of what was just said. By doing this, you protect yourself from your own emotions and can remain composed for much longer. Additionally, if the person talking to you really is trying to upset you, doing this will take away any power they thought they had. Consistently doing this can then change the dynamic of the entire conversation, and improve any chance you have of having a productive dialogue.
To practice this… Acknowledge when you are having a sudden reaction to something said, then either talk about it or step away from it, and disassociate the idea from yourself.
Many of these techniques will be difficult to get a hold of, and no one will be able to practice them perfectly each time. However, being mindful of how we have our political discussions can save us and those we speak to a lot of stress.
For more tips on how to practice your politics better — or just to understand what that even means — feel free to follow this publication, Practicing Politics.
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